"Dyin' Ain't Much of a Livin'": The Ethics of Rebellion in the Outlaw Josey Wales

By Elce, Erika Behrisch | English Studies in Canada, September-December 2016 | Go to article overview

"Dyin' Ain't Much of a Livin'": The Ethics of Rebellion in the Outlaw Josey Wales


Elce, Erika Behrisch, English Studies in Canada


CLINT EASTWOOD'S ROLE as the sympathetic outlaw Josey Wales (1976) presents students in my first-year literature classes at the Royal Military College of Canada with an ethical conundrum. The film and its eponymous hero underscore the slippery nature of morality in a time of war as well as the ethics of rebellion. The film dramatizes a scenario that may well become reality for some RMCC cadets, all of whom have dedicated at least a portion of their professional lives to upholding national values in a military context and have committed themselves to being potentially "lawfully ordered into harm's way under conditions that could lead to the loss of their lives" against people who might be much like Wales himself: disenfranchised, dispossessed, angry, and armed (Duty 26). In the film, Wales fights his nation's government; in the present day, my students have taken an oath to defend theirs, and yet Wales's antistatism is understandable, even admirable. This tension between personal and professional loyalties lies at the centre of student discussions of the film: How can Wales be a sympathetic character while defying the very system RMCC's officer cadets represent?

Many critics have described The Outlaw Josey Wales as exclusively antistatist, particularly in its connection with the novel that inspired it: "arch segregationist" Forrest (Asa) Carter's 1972 Gone to Texas is just one book in a series of fictional works that acted as platforms for Carter's consistent and "vehement political criticism" (Clayton 20, 21). Carter's true identity as a white supremacist was allegedly unknown "until just after the film was released," but nevertheless the film, like the book, on one level "portrays a valorized image of the victimized white American who wreaks havoc on an authoritarian state" (Lowndes 239, 238). Certainly, Wales spends most of the film evading capture by Union forces, and his several escapes from both Union and state-sponsored bounty hunters support this antistatist interpretation, implying as they do that happiness (and indeed, life) is achievable only beyond state jurisdiction. "Antistatist" may describe a significant part of the film's social comment, but not all of it; I would argue instead that, even in its hostility to the imposition of an organized state, the film is still decisively positive about the practice of ethical government. The film's portrayal of Wales at the centre of a new community--the Crooked River Ranch at Santa Rio--shows that he is not an anarchist but that he envisions and practises a style of governance that is simply (but profoundly) different from the destructive national policy he experiences at the hands of postwar Unionists.

Two philosophical positions enrich our classroom discussion of Wales's moral standing by offering alternative perspectives on how to view his profoundly antisocial behaviour, showing it to be, although officially rebellious, deeply ethical. The first is the Canadian professional military ethos as articulated in Duty with Honour: The Profession of Arms in Canada (2003), a manual that all members of the Canadian Forces, including my students, are required to read and by which they must abide. Duty with Honour calls attention to the necessary direct correlation between national values and military action; officers and non-commissioned members alike "are dedicated to the national values of the country they are sworn to defend," values grounded in democracy and the rule of law (Duty 21). The government portrayed in Josey Wales, however, represents the destruction of the family unit, and, in rebelling against a system that destroys both his home and his livelihood, Wales does only what is necessary to ensure his own survival and that of others who eventually find themselves under his care. In this context, The Outlaw Josey Wales belongs to a rich tradition of ethical antistatism from Robin Hood to The Hunger Games, in which lone characters take on a hostile state in order to improve the lives of others. …

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